Avon

The latest marketplace data would seem to say publishers are as strong as ever


This post began being written a couple of weeks ago when I recalled some specific misplaced expectations I had for the self-publishing revolution and started to ponder why things happened the way they did in recent years. It turns out a big part of the answer I was looking for provides clarity that extends far beyond my original question.

For a period of a few years that probably ended two or three years ago, we saw individual authors regularly crashing bestseller lists with self-published works. Some, like Amanda Hocking, parlayed their bootstrap efforts into significant publishing contracts. Others, like Hugh Howey, focused on building their own little enterprise and tried to use the publishing establishment for what it could do that a self-publisher couldn’t. (In what was certainly a very rare arrangement of this kind with a major indie author, Howey made a print-only deal for his bestseller, “Wool”, with Simon & Schuster. And he made foreign territory and language deals and Hollywood deals as well.) And we know that there were, and are, a slew of indie authors who self-publish through Amazon and don’t even bother to buy ISBN numbers to get universal distribution under a single title identifier, effectively keeping them out of bookstores.

All of this was enabled by three big changes to the historical book publishing and distribution ecosystem. One was the rise of ebooks, which simplified the challenge of putting book content into distributable form and getting it into the hands of consumers. The second was the near-perfection of print on demand technology, which enabled even print books to be offered with neither a significant investment in inventory nor the need for a warehouse to store it. And the third was the increased concentration of sales at a single retailer, Amazon. Between print and digital editions, Amazon sells half or more of the units on many titles and, indeed, may be approaching half the retail sales overall for the US industry.

(This is very hard to measure or even get reliable anecdata for. Amazon sells globally. Indeed, one of its great contributions to publishers is pretty seamlessly enabling them to reach export markets through a domestic supplier. But it also means that publishers can tend to see all Amazon sales as “domestic”, even when they’re not. US publishers are often telling us that half their sales are coming from Amazon, but how much of those sales are to offshore accounts is not consciously backed out of the numbers.)

What the rush of indie bestsellers told us a few years ago was that things had changed to the point that a single person with a computer could achieve sales numbers that would please a big corporation going after sales with the tools provided by tons of overhead: careful curation and development, sophisticated production capabilities, teams of marketers and publicists, legions of sales people, and acres of warehouse space. This had not been possible before ebooks. And the market reach of the amateur publisher was extended even further as Amazon’s share of print sales surged as a direct result of retail shelf space declining with Borders’s passing and Barnes & Noble’s shrinkage.

For a period of time that was relatively brief and which now has passed, agents and publishers worried that self-publishing could be appealing to authors they’d want in their ecosystem. The author’s share of the consumer dollar is much higher through self-publishing. And the idea of “control” is very appealing, even if the responsibility that goes with it is real and sometimes onerous.

So, I warned with what felt like prescience, entity self-publishing might present an even greater threat to publishers than independent authors would.

I was thinking about the scale value that publishers brought to producing revenue for books. Historically, that had been about capabilities that only a book publisher would have at its disposal, the tools we referred to earlier. With Ingram then adding a turnkey service called “Spark” to reach the half of the market that was not delivered by Amazon in the US, access to other ebook retailers wherever they are, and enabling print sales around the world, a publisher could “rent” all the infrastructure it would need to reach all the audience there is with two stops: Amazon and Ingram.

The entities that I had my eye on from the book publishers’ perspective were those already in the print content business: newspapers and magazines. They all start out with assets that would seem to lend themselves to creating and promoting books. They have access to vast number of writers, on staff and through work-for-hire arrangements. They have editors on staff as well as the knowledge of how to find and hire more for projects. They have direct online access to a large number of consumers, including the opportunity to know their interests in a very granular way. They have advertisers who could be useful for promoting books or even buying them in bulk.

But despite the fact that there was, indeed, a slew of activity 2-to-4 years ago from a variety of non-book publishing content entities to get into ebooks, there have been no apparent breakthroughs. Nobody has cracked the code. Nobody who is not a book publisher has used the rent-a-scale capabilities to build a sustained book business.

It is not that many haven’t tried, or are still trying. Among those who have been or are still in the game are The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, NBC, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and The Boston Globe. They have sometimes worked in conjunction with digital start-ups. For example, the New York Times worked with Vook (now called Pronoun and acquired earlier this year by Macmillan) and Byliner, whose original proposition was “short ebooks”.

There have been a variety of approaches to create the content. Sometimes these publications and websites have recycled their own material or used internal resources. The Boston Globe did an insta-book on Whitey Bulger and some on Boston sports teams, as well as creating a book of photos of Boston that had already run in the paper. (The Boston Bruins’ Stanley Cup championship was commemorated in a book delivered both in print and digital days after they won.) The Star-Tribune used internal staff to execute the mechanics of delivering ebooks. The Boston Globe’s Bulger book, published by Norton in print, showed them that they could do the ebook work themselves.

Obviously, the idea of book programs using magazine brands is not new with the digital age. Decades ago, Hearst, Rodale, and Meredith were all big magazine companies committed to real book programs, which was what it took to support the infrastructure or to form a close relationship with a publisher to provide it. Hearst has had a robust book program for a long time because they once owned the book publishers Morrow and Avon. When they were sold in the mid-1990s, the management saw virtue in maintaining the book program so they teamed up with Sterling Publishing for everything from assists creating the content to all the scaled book publishing functions. The relationship continues to this day, although Hearst also licenses other projects to other publishers. Rodale remains active in both books and magazines, with their own organization doing the books. And Meredith temporarily moved its book program from “independent” to publisher John Wiley. It is now a shadow of its former self.

Even in the simplified age we’re in now, leaning on a publisher with all the pieces in place can be a way to tackle the challenge of having an adequate infrastructure for books. I am currently reading a “Washington Post” ebook on climate change that was published in conjunction with Diversion Books, a digital-first publisher created by literary agent Scott Waxman during the height of the indie publishing ebook fever.

But searching for a surge in this kind of activity generated by the digital revolution consistently takes us back to two and four years ago. In 2012, Random House partnered with the website Politico to deliver four ebooks on the 2012 presidential race. We’re not aware of anything similar taking place this year. The Minnesota Star Tribune was pushing their ebook initiative in 2013. The Boston Globe got into the game in 2011. The Times did a story in 2011 about the phenomenon which covered a Vanity Fair ebook of collected articles about Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation when they were the caught in a scandal. Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, loved the whole idea. He loved the idea of publishing articles which had already been fact-checked and copy-edited. “It’s like having a loose-leaf binder and shoving new pages into it.”

The Byliner collaboration with the New York Times was first reported in 2012, and the Times started their initiative with Vook almost simultaneously. At the same time, programs were being announced in the UK by the Guardian and the Financial Times.

All of that inspired the pundit in me to say “watch out”. But there’s been a lot less activity since. It’s worth asking why.

Of course, there are logistical and organizational challenges to just bolting a book publishing program onto an existing content-creating entity. The writers and editors at newspapers and magazines are already fully employed; they’re not looking for additional things to do. And the job specs and incentive arrangements are all about the principal activity. The marketing mechanisms at a periodical publisher are, likewise, fully engaged. So the newspaper or magazine might have more powerful tools for some marketing purposes than a book publisher does, but no book operation inside one of them could get them dedicated to help sell books on anything but the most sporadic and opportunistic basis.

In addition to the fact that the sailors all have existing assignments, a book publishing initiative would also lack a captain. We observed a couple of years ago that one of the great indie publishing successes, a cookbook called “Modernist Cuisine”, carrying a price tag of $625 and published by Microsoft co-founder Nathan Myhrvold, was largely made possible by the leadership of a veteran publisher, Bruce Harris. Yes, Ingram did the “scale” work: printing, warehousing, selling, distributing. And it wouldn’t have been possible without them. But Harris worked out the commercial equations (what should the retail price be, for example) and the marketing campaign that carried it to its success.

There are other veteran publishers like Harris available to be engaged as consultants, but it is also much easier for a single entrepreneur like Myhrvold to make use of one than it would be to have them integrate with an existing organization formed for another purpose.

I asked indie-publishing experts Jane Friedman and Porter Anderson (their weekly “Hot Sheet” newsletter for independent authors is a great resource) for their take on the question I was posing: what happened to all those newspapers and magazine initiatives? Why did it seem that none of them achieved the success I was expecting?

Friedman drew on her experience at Virginia Quarterly Review (VQR), which had publishing ambitions based on ebook economies but ultimately abandoned them. She saw the “complications” falling into three buckets.

Clearing rights for projects with multiple authors, which VQR would have been frequently called upon to do, was challenging, time-consuming, and frustrating.

The organizational structure and staffing was far from optimal for a book publishing operation.

The profit potential was too small to make it worth the effort to overcome the other two problems.

But, even accepting all of that,  I’d suggest that the biggest reason this activity was so feverish 2-to-4 years ago and isn’t so much now was revealed first in a vitally important post by hybrid author and helper-of-indies Bob Mayer and then reiterated by the latest report from the Author Earnings website.

Mayer built an impressive business for himself by reissuing titles of his that had previously been successfully published and gone out of print. He spells out clearly what has changed since the days of big indie success and the plethora of entity-based publishing initiatives.

The marketplace has been flooded. An industry that used to produce one or two hundred thousand titles a year now produces over a million. Nothing ages out of availability anymore. Even without POD keeping books in print, ebooks and used books make sure that almost nothing ever disappears completely. And Mayer’s sales across a wide range of titles — his and other authors whom he has helped — reflect the mushrooming competition. They’re down sharply, as are the sales of just about everybody he knows.

What Mayer wrote tended to confirm that the breakthrough indie authors happened far more frequently before the market was flooded. Authors who struck it rich in 2010 and 2011 (like Hugh Howey) were lucky to get in before the glut. Recommending that somebody try to do the same thing in 2013 or 2014 was telling them to swim in a pool with water of a completely different temperature.

On the heels of Mayer’s piece, Author Earnings made discoveries that seemed to startle even them. For those who don’t know, AE is a data collection and analysis operation put together by indie author Hugh Howey teamed with the anonymous analyst “Data Guy”. The AE emphasis is on what the author gets, (“a site for authors by authors” is what they call themselves) with less interest in what publishers want to know: how topline ebook revenues are shifting.

According to the industry’s best analyst, Michael Cader, the most recent AE report shows, for the first time since they’ve been tracking it, a reduction in earnings for indie authors and an increase for published authors. (Cader may have a paywall; here’s another report from Publishing Perspectives.) But even more startling is the shift in revenue. Publishers have booked 65% of Kindle revenues and Amazon Publishing has 10%. They put self-published authors at 20%, which is down from 25% previously.

It is not a big surprise that Amazon Publishing is able to grow its own share of Kindle revenue. But the fact that publishers are holding their own, in the aggregate, while indie authors are not, underscores the challenge that non-publisher books are facing. The title output of publishers has remained relatively flat. The title output of indies has surged. So the per title sales of indie books must be collapsing relative to the publishers’ output.

What this is telling us is that, whatever deficiencies there are in the way publishers are organized for publishing today, they clearly are able to marshal their resources more effectively for book after book than indies can. So, not only does the “entity publisher” have the challenge of refocusing an organization designed for something else to sell books, they’re fighting a tidal wave of competition that enters the market because of the low barriers to entry. In fact, if you were at a newspaper or magazine today and thinking about putting your company into the book business, there would be powerful arguments to follow the Hearst formulation of creating a home inside an established book publisher rather than building a low-overhead operation for yourself. But that option has always been available; it didn’t require a digital revolution to deliver it.

A lot has been made of the fact that big publishers are seeing topline revenue erosion across print and digital. But the ability for readers to consume books has, at best, remained flat (there are so many more distractions immediately available these days) and the number to choose from has exploded. That means the per-title sales are plummeting. Per-title sales are what tell us whether publishers or independent authors can make any money. And the math is clear: it is getting harder and harder to do so, but it seems to be getting harder faster for the indies than it is for the established publishers.

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Rethinking book marketing and its organization in the big houses


Here’s a modest proposal about how marketers at big publishers should be organized.

By audience segment, or, to use my own favored terminology, by vertical.

Marketing demands it and entirely new business opportunities — beyond publishing — can arise from it.

A publisher — even the most general publisher — should figure out which audiences it targets again and again. Some of those are easy and neat and defined by genre, like “romance readers”. Some of them might be defined by demographics and might overlap with genre readers, like “single women under 30”. Some of them might be defined by interests, such as “passionate chefs”.

Each audience segment already has its own web sites, its own apps, its own nomenclature, its own influencers. And, of course, each audience segment wants to know about the books (and other content) that relate to its core interest.

Marketers have always asked about every title: “who is the audience?” Now to optimize their digital marketing efforts, publishers large and small are wanting to know about that audience: “where can I find them?”

Big publishers have always posed their marketing questions in a title-by-title context.

Rick Joyce, the Chief Marketing Officer at Perseus, came to the conclusion by using the social listening tools in the market (like Covercake and Radian 6) that the best approach with them was to use them categorically, rather than title-by-title. He spelled that out to the audience at our Publishers Launch Frankfurt conference last October.

Pete McCarthy of McCarthy Digital made a related point to me when he explained that it became very clear to him at Random House that the more data that he had to work with, the more effectively he could target an audience. So the rich get richer. It was a lot easier for Pete to structure a strong marketing outreach for Dan Brown than for a first novelist. And it is much easier for marketers to build up data around a category of readers than it is around any single title.

But, as far as I can tell, no publisher has (yet) taken the step of moving away from title-centric marketing structure to an audience-centric marketing organization.

It is bound to happen. There will be increasing pressure on the existing structure driven by two related realities: bookstore decline and Internet-based marketing opportunities.

Until a very short time ago, books not in a bookstore had very little chance of selling, regardless of how powerful a publicity break they could generate. Now we’re seeing an average (across titles and genres) of more than 30% of the book sales being made online. “In stock in stores” isn’t nearly the requirement to make sales that it used to be and it will be less important every month than it was the month before for a long time to come.

The understanding that books wouldn’t sell if they weren’t available at retail excused the savvy publisher from reacting to every marketing stimulus that came down the pike. Only the successful books remained widely available more than 90 days after publication date, so media breaks that occurred later than that in most books’ lives had to meet a very high threshold to be worth acting upon. If the publisher didn’t know about a break far enough in advance to get books in place — and if the break weren’t persuasive enough to make retailers cooperate with that effort, perhaps on a book they’d returned a month or a year ago — then it was just background noise.

In fact, relatively few real marketing breaks occurred for books post-publication in the past the way they do now. Sophisticated print and air media tended to be most interested in books when they were new. If you’re “book-centric”, you focus on the new and upcoming, not on the history.

But life isn’t like that anymore. Books can be discovered at any time because the metadata doesn’t disappear from the virtual shelves. And because so much of the media isn’t book-centric (very few blogs have a book review editor sifting though the new releases), if the book is new to them and relevant to their audience’s current concerns, they’ll be interested in it.

So while it used to be perfectly acceptable (even “highly professional”) to ignore an author’s call telling his or her editor that s/he has a radio interview scheduled for next Saturday (although you would always say “thanks for letting us know”), it isn’t anymore.

With more marketing breaks taking place that are independent of a book’s publication date and in a time when we can no longer call off the marketing efforts for each book when it is about a month old, the by-title approach to marketing is bound to become a workflow nightmare. The old stuff won’t move out of the way to make room for the new. And books remaining permanently in the marketplace combined with the proliferation of marketing outlets assures that the number of stimuli calling for a response will just continue to grow.

It will become less and less acceptable (and less and less wise) to simply ignore post-publication marketing breaks. And when publishers move away from a title-driven marketing structure to an audience-driven marketing structure, it won’t be necessary either.

This is how I imagine organizing the trade publisher’s marketing department in the future. I’m describing an idealized scenario to get there that is almost certainly not immediately practical for anybody, but I think makes it easier to visualize the desired state.

A publisher will build a list of target audiences, defined by interest or demographics. Probably this exercise is best started by looking at the company’s top 1000 titles (I’m imagining a Big Six-type house here; the exercise is actually easier for a smaller and nichier player.) We’ll call the individual audience segments being targeted “verticals.” Each vertical will be assigned a team (although a single team might work more than one vertical and any individual marketer could be on more than one team). Flexibility is key here; each audience has different value to the house and the person-hours allotted to the vertical has to bear some reasonable relationship to the revenue potential. So these teams are not “one size fits all”. That’s why marketers will be on more than one team; some will warrant a fraction of the time and effort of others.

For each vertical, the marketing team’s job is to make audiences aware of the house’s books on a timely basis (which does not mean “pub date”, but means “when a book is currently relevant and likely to be of interest to the audience” which is something that is, on some level, examined anew every single day), to get the audience to “talk” (tweet, blog, chat, comment) about the house’s books, to know enough about trends with the audience to suss out topics of future interest, and to conceive marketing programs — subscription services, establishing brands, selling non-content offerings — to both monetize and get closer to the market.

In some verticals, it might be possible to establish a community hub — a website or an app or a subscription offering or a sharing or annotation capability — that can serve as an anchor for ongoing communication with the vertical. But that won’t happen most of the time. What the marketing team is looking for are the hubs that already exist and the ways to get close to them, collaborate with them, identify the opportunities they present and take advantage of them.

Let’s imagine that there are 100 such audiences with teams assigned to them to start out. Any book might call for help from one of them or several of them. Only in very rare cases should it be necessary to coordinate efforts for a book across teams, because they’re working different audiences.

This approach will result in publishers learning a lot more than they know about the audiences for what they publish. For example, one would imagine (going in) that “literary fiction” has an audience that is common: that there are people that want to read the most “writerly” books. But it will only become evident over time whether “quality” (meaning “literary” or not) trumps genre categorically. I’d assume a priori there are books that would “work” for a romance or sci-fi vertical but also for a “literary” vertical. But perhaps the “literary” team will find that well-written romances don’t work with their audience, even though well-written science fiction does.

Working this way will deliver a publisher a much deeper understanding of the readers and what makes them respond. The most obvious drawback is that it will be more difficult to manage the marketing teams on a per-title basis. You will be putting titles into the hands of many different teams because it has many overlapping audiences when you define them by interests and demographics. And each of them will have timing and messages that are largely, if not primarily, influenced by the environment in their vertical.

Obviously, it will be much harder to coordinate a Big Bang on pub date using this approach. But the guess here is that the necessity for that is diminishing over time anyway and it will be compensated for by the improvement of marketing across the list, on smaller titles and on backlist. There’s room for a “big books coordination” function. It won’t interfere much with the work of the individual teams to have to be in corporate harness for a small number of titles.

With this sort of structure in place, all sorts of additional development not only becomes possible, it becomes inevitable. And the problem of knowing when and how to react to marketing breaks will largely be solved. Purely hypothetically, the “electoral politics” vertical team might find that an NPR break is worth a lot of effort to promote and the “gourmet eating” vertical team might learn it isn’t of much value at all. Niche subscription services, newsletters, first chapter distributions, and event development will flow naturally from the focus on audiences. Having a large number of teams, with many marketers working more than one of them, will encourage both experimentation and the spread of best practices.

This audience-centric way of thinking is pretty natural, or at least easier, for smaller publishers. They tend to specialize by subject or genre more than the bigger players do anyway. They don’t have new titles literally every day — every major house does more than 365 books a year and some are publishing closer to 10 titles every working day — to keep their marketers from having the time to think about anything else. (Yes, the big houses have more marketers than the smaller ones, but whether they have more headcount per title would be a different question.)

It has already happened that the vertical marketing efforts of smaller, more-focused houses have enabled them to be very competitive with big houses in certain niches. One agent told me several years ago that he had concluded that the mind-body-spirit specialist publisher Hay House could sell many times the number of copies of a book in their sweet spot than a Big Six house. Hay House has focused on its audience, collecting email names and running paid events, for years. They have the ability to promote to hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions — of their core audience without incremental cost. And, not to say that there isn’t plenty of imaginative marketing thinking in their shop, I’d maintain that the innovations that give them marketing power follow pretty naturally from publishing and marketing to the same audience repeatedly. They didn’t have to organize vertical teams for marketing; their entire company is a vertical team.

And Jane Friedman’s Open Road, much of whose list consists of established backlists for which the company was able to acquire the ebook rights, is not as “vertical” but they are similarly untethered from a publication-date-driven marketing strategy. Open Road works from a marketing calendar that looks at the events that will drive consumer behavior and they market to that. What have we got and how can we position it for Father’s Day? What have we got and how do we position it for Election Day? It isn’t exactly vertical, but it is audience-centric and thinking that way makes it natural for the marketers to promote the right backlist at the right time.

But it is structurally much more difficult for a major house to do this because it means blowing up — or at the very least diverting a lot of resources from — the existing title- and imprint-based marketing structure. Imprints in major houses were rarely if ever formed around audiences; they were formed around editorial units. In general houses, even the individual editoral units work tend to work across many topical areas. In the big houses, really it is only the genre fiction that gets an editorial unit, branding, and marketing teams dedicated to them.

That’s why many of the the most interesting innovations in the big houses, like Tor’s massive mailing lists and cross-publisher ebook store and Avon’s Facebook-centric initiative to sell non-DRMd titles through AllRomanceebooks.com, tend to come from the genre fiction units.

There is definitely full awareness in the major houses that “marketing at scale” must replace “we put books on shelves” as their defining value proposition. They are shifting more and more resources to marketing. They’re investing in and learning about SEO (search engine optimization) and SEM (search engine marketing).

Random House, showing one strategy that is consistent with this perspective, is developing a tool set to create bookstores for existing vertical sites, starting with Politico. If it works, that’s an extensible way to get the marketing benefits of niche community-building for your books without having to build the community yourself. And it fits with the point we make above that vertical marketing efforts don’t have to be about creating communities; it is more efficient to exploit those that have already been created.

But as far as I can tell, no house is close to accepting the reality that the title-driven and pubdate-driven marketing techniques that we all grew up with will shortly have outlived their usefulness. The increased demands on marketers created by new opportunities, particularly those arising for books past their pub date, are being met now by adding to staff and tinkering with the rules about what’s worth attention and what isn’t and, of course, trying to create tools and techniques that will enable the title-driven and pubdate-driven efforts to be more effective at scale.

Change will ultimately come in stages. (I can’t even imagine how one would quickly implement the plan as I describe it here in a massive publishing house.) Nobody will start with 100 vertical marketing teams and small remnants of the existing structure. But it is definitely time for every house to have three or six marketing teams focused on specific audiences.

When those have raised the sales on the relevant backlist, resuscitated some dormant titles into an active status, created a couple of surprise bestsellers a few months after they were published, and brought in a few great books that were never seen by an agent or any other house, it will make it much easier for management to see for themselves, and persuade all their colleagues, that this is the way to the future.

And, beyond that, when publishers become expert in targeted audiences and also have content reservoirs to attract them and learn more about them, entirely new commercial opportunities will emerge. But that’s imagineering on top of imagineering, so we’ll leave it for another day.

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Technology, curation, and why the era of big bookstores is coming to an end


I stumbled across a Sarah Weinman post from a few months ago that posits the notion that the chain bookstore (by which it would appear she means the superstores of the past 20 years, not the chain bookstores in malls that grew up in the prior 20 years) perhaps had a natural life cycle which is now coming to an end. She points out that the investment by Wall Street in the concept of massive destination bookstores enabled their creation, but ultimately resulted in great excess: too many stores with too many square feet to fill and too many books in them that don’t sell.

This is a really good and thoughtful post and I think the observation that the availability of capital built the excess which is now partly responsible for dragging down the structure is correct. But it triggered some additional thoughts that make me want to again trace the history (which I believe has called for smaller bookstores for several years) from before the 1990s when Sarah’s post picks it up and to look at bookstore history through the lens of tech development, which I think both enabled the massive bookstores and is now bringing about their demise.

The core challenge of bookselling — in the past, present, and future, online and in stores, for printed books or digital ones — is curation. How does the bookseller help the reader sort through all of the possible reading choices, of which there are, literally, millions, to find the reader’s next purchase?

In a shop, that curation begins with with what the store management puts on the shop shelves. The overwheming majority of customers in a brick bookstore who buy something choose from what is in the store.

The second line of curation in a shop is in the details of the shelving itself. Is the book face out or spined? Is it at eye-level or ankle-level? Is it on a front table in a stack? Is it displayed in more than one section of the store, which would increase the likelihood it will be seen?

And the third line of curation in a brick bookstore is what the sales personnel know and tell the customers.

In the period right after World War II, there was virtually no technology to help booksellers with curation at all. Sales reps would call (or not) and show catalogs of forthcoming books from which the bookseller would order. There were hundreds of publishers any full-line bookstore would have to do business with. But there weren’t very many full-line bookstores then. Departments stores and small regional chains (Burrows Brothers in Cleveland, Kroch’s & Brentano’s in Chicago) were the principal accounts.

Frankly, what was stocked in most stores then had a huge randomness component. This was the world my father, Leonard Shazkin, encountered when he became Director of Research at Doubleday in 1954 and, a few years later, created the Doubleday Merchandising Plan. By offering the service of tracking the sales in stores, using reps to take physical inventories in the days before computers could track it, Doubleday took the order book out of the bookstore’s hands for the reordering of Doubleday backlist titles. That solved the problem of breaching the first line of curation. And the reps, now freed of the enormously time-consuming task of selling the buyer on backlist reorders title by title, had more time to affect the second and third lines of curation: the display of the books in the stores and the knowledge the store personnel had about Doubleday books. Sales of Doubleday books exploded, approximately quadrupling for the backlist.

In the early 1960s, Len saw the impact of increased selection from the bookstore’s side of the table. He had moved from Doubleday to Crowell-Collier/Macmillan, which owned the Brentano’s chain. He was put in charge. At first, Brentano’s weakest store was its outlet in Short Hills, New Jersey. They doubled the selection of books and, almost instantly, Short Hills became the best-performing store in the chain.

It took until the late 1960s, when shopping centers were springing up across the country, for the first two national book chains, Walden and B. Dalton, to develop and become a serious force in the industry. And in the early 1970s, Ingram and Baker & Taylor became the first national book wholesalers to cover the country with a wide selection of titles. Dalton and Ingram became industry leaders and both were boosted by technology breakthroughs.

Dalton installed smart cash registers that enabled them to key in a number for each book, telling them what had sold. They didn’t use ISBNs, which were in their infancy; Dalton assigned their own SKU (stock-keeping unit) numbers which were stickered onto the books. The system was far from perfect, but it was revolutionary. For the first time, a bookseller and its publisher suppliers knew some real sales data in a timely fashion (Dalton’s numbers were tallied weekly). And the system also enabled Dalton to keep books that were selling in stock through automated means as well.

Ingram was the first wholesaler to employ microfiche technology to tell booksellers what was available right now in their warehouse. The weekly microfiches were, of course, primitive signals of availability compared to today’s instantaneous online capabilities, but this was also a revolutionary breakthrough. It enabled rapid resupply for all stores, including the chains, of the books they sold each day..

In the late 1970s, scanning technology had developed so that the Dalton key-in-the-SKU system could be leapfrogged by Walden using ISBNs at the register, which could often be scanned into the computer record. Also being developed at that time were various methods for automated order processing between publishers and their customers. By the middle of the 1980s, just before the period when Sarah’s narrative begins, bookstores were growing rapidly. The cost of putting the books on the shelves was dropping in relation to sales and the ability to put the right books on the shelves at the right time was enhanced for everybody. Good curation became much cheaper and much easier and, not surprisingly, sales of books grew dramatically.

Paradoxically, the decline of mass-market paperback distribution created new opportunities for the biggest publishers in hardcover. Mass-market grew on the illusory efficiency of forced distribution. For the first two decades after World War II, the rack-sized paperbacks would show up in the pockets at your local drug store or five and dime without a local buyer having to make a selection. That, combined with a much smaller share of margin going to the retailer, paid for the inherent inefficiencies of ham-handed curation. (And, let’s remember, only the covers had to be sent back for “returns”.)

But as paperbacks became more important and more mainstream, the biggest customers of the local wholesalers who racked them wanted better margins and more control. And the sales volumes had built to the point that many of them could now afford a buyer to deal directly with a number of mass market publishers, so the best accounts started shifting to direct. This weakened the original distribution network, but it opened up the opportunity for publishers to put books other than the rack-sized paperbacks into what had been rack-only accounts.

The first probes with larger trade paperbacks were with romance authors like Rosemary Rogers. The mass channels were more comfortable trying an experiment with format and price with authors they already knew.

The first great exploitation of mass distribution for what was really a trade book was by Peter Mayer (the boss) and Bill Shinker (the marketer) at Avon with the book “The People’s Pharmacy” in about 1975. Avon, a paperback house that published a lot of romance titles, had been one of the pioneers putting the larger books into the mass channel.

Bantam then used the technique for hardcovers, again starting with authors the mass channel already knew like Louis L’Amour and Clive Cussler, before hitting a massive all-channels mass-market home run with “Iacocca” in 1985. (And thanks to Jack Romanos, who was running things there then, for helping me get my recollections straight.)

The increased efficiency of distribution through technology and disintermediation in turn enabled discounting. Crown Books built a chain in the 1980s which mostly sold remainders and bargain books but carried a good selection of current titles with bestsellers deeply discounted. This fueled a further increase in unit sales.

Meanwhile, independent bookstores beginning to use primitive computerized inventory management systems were proving repeatedly what Brentano’s had demonstrated to Len Shatzkin in 1963: a big selection of books attracts a very substantial clientele. So technologically-driven efficiency lent a hand to delivering a more attractive selection (curation) by making it a bigger selection.

And in the late 1980s, these two things — the Crown discounting attraction and the independents large selection attraction — were combined by entrepreneurs in Austin, Texas, who created a store called Bookstop that provided both. Bookstop became the prototype “super” bookstore and, before long, Wall Street money was financing Barnes & Noble (which had bought Dalton) and Borders (which had bought Walden) to roll out these bookselling behemoths nationwide.

Which is where Sarah’s post kicks in. But in the context of what came before, I’d add one element she didn’t to the analytical mix. It created a paradigm shift in curation using technology. It’s called Amazon dot com.

While even the largest bookstore had shelf space limiting its title selection, Amazon did not. Through good luck (licensing the Baker & Taylor database which contained a lot of out-of-print titles), good thinking (providing a clear “promise date” for the available books and assisting people’s search efforts by telling them explicitly if a book was not available), and brilliant execution (Amazon’s hallmark from its first moment until the present day), Amazon completely shifted the psychology of book shopping.

Until Amazon, if you wanted any particular book or if you didn’t know exactly what you wanted, your best strategy was to go to the shop with the biggest selection to try to find it. Once Amazon happened, the magnet of in-store selection lost its power for many customers. If you knew what you wanted and you didn’t need it right this minute, the most efficient way to buy it would be to go to Amazon and order it. Customers who would have been browsing store aisles and, if necessary, placing special orders with their bookstore, now just shopped online.

I first saw what is clearly the impact of this through some work I did with Barnes & Noble sales data for university presses about a decade ago. In the recent years before that work, starting in the late 1990s, Barnes & Noble had tried to expand its selection of university press titles. This was applying a time-honored understanding of curation to improve the store selection.

But the results were beyond disappointing. Sales were not rising for the university presses; returns were. What became increasingly clear was that professors, the biggest market for university press books, were a leading edge demographic shifting their buying online. Makes sense, really, considering that they were often finding out about the books they wanted to order through something that had occurred online!

It was at that time — about 2002 or 2003 — that the late Steve Clark, then sales rep for Cambridge University Press and one of the publishers I was working with, told me that Amazon was a bigger account for his company than all other US retailers combined.

This was a big “aha” for me. I had grown up with the Brentano’s “selection” story and had seen it demonstrated over and over again throughout my career that increasing the title selection in a location increased the traffic and increased the sales. Technology had changed the reality. The magnetic power of a physical space full of books to bring in shoppers had been weakened. The surest way to find something that wasn’t as ubiquitous as a current bestseller remained a visit the store with the most selection. But that store was no longer in a building. It was in your computer.

And, ultimately, that is the single most powerful force bringing the era of the super bookstore to an end.

Of course, massive selection is only the first aspect of curation and the other parts are not nearly so well done online. Or, at least, they haven’t been yet. This is a major conundrum for the industry as bookstores fade and it’s the reason three big publishers have financed the startup Bookish. The stores depend on the publishers’ metadata to do this work and the publishers’ depend on the stores’ systems and merchandising creativity. Perhaps partly because the necessary collaboration hasn’t occurred, an effective online equivalent to in-store browsing hasn’t yet been developed.

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Ebooks are making me recall the history of mass-market publishing


The ebook revolution is really beginning to remind me of the mass-market papeback revolution.

The mass paperback was really “invented” by Sir Allan Lane when he created Penguin in Britain before World War II. (Wikipedia credits a German publisher with the first cheap paperbacks a few years earlier, but Lane was certainly the first in English and deserving of some extra credit because the company he started continues in the same business to the present day.) Pocket Books in the US was also born just before the war. During World War II, historian and polymath Philip Van Doren Stern (who wrote, among other things, the New Yorker short story on which the movie classic  “It’s A Wonderful Life” was based) ran a program for the US military by which inexpensive paperbacks were made available to the troops.

After the war ended, mass market publishing really grew. Many houses — Ballantine, Bantam, Signet, Avon — were launched immediately following the war. The key to mass-market publishing was that it achieved distribution through the network of wholesalers that put magazines on newsstands and in local stores (often drugstroes) nationwide. Unlike trade books, which required an agreement between publisher and bookseller to get a copy of any book on a retail shelf, mass markets were “allocated” by the publisher to the wholesaler and in turn pushed out by the wholesaler to the racks they controlled.

The advantage of this distribution technique was that it enabled lots of copies to be pushed out to lots of places with much lower sales and distribution costs. The disadvantage was that it really only worked if books were treated like magazines, with “on sale dates” when they went out and “off sale dates” when they were pulled back and, like magazines, had their guts pulped while only the covers were returned for credit.

The paperbacks were typically priced at 25 cents when hardcover books were $2 or $3. (Compare that 8-to-1 or 12-to-1 pricing ratio to what exists today. It doesn’t.) And mass-markets were available in tens of thousands of locations nationwide, perhaps more than a hundred thousand, when bookstores were few, department stores tended to have only one location, and trade books were typically available in hundreds of locations, or at most a couple of thousand.

The much more widespread availability of these titles combined with their much lower prices created legions of new readers. And, in the beginning, most mass-markets titles tended to fit into “genres”. Westerns were a really big one fifty years ago. Bantam’s perennial bestselling author of westerns, Louis L’Amour, may still be the biggest-selling author in unit sales in (what is now) Random House history. Crime and science fiction lines were also popular as were raunchy books. I’m not sure that romance lines existed in the way they do now (although I’ll bet that among the readers of this blog are people who will tell me that answer); at that time there were lots of magazines peddling romance stories (as there were for other genres.)

If this is ringing some bells for an observer of the ebook transition who didn’t know paperback history, it is entirely intended to. Let’s ring a few more.

The hardcover publishers were very snobby about the paperback houses. Over time it developed that the mass-marketers were able to create enormous additional revenues from books previously published as hardcovers. (This did require the mass-market publishers to keep some titles on sale for longer than a normal cycle, which was not simple, but worth the trouble for books that sold really well.)

The name recognition of successful books, along with the ability to put words which said “established bestseller” on the cover, could be converted into huge sales given the much lower prices and much wider distribution mass-market could achieve. Over time this led to rapidly rising paperback license payments from paperback publishers to hardcover publishers. These were, by traditional contract, shared 50-50 with the authors. They provided a substantial, if temporary, bonanza for the trade houses in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

But the new marketplace also led to the growth of genre authors whose audiences were established for low-priced paperbacks. It was often difficult for those authors to move “up” to more expensive hardcover publication. Their audiences didn’t want to pay the higher prices, but they also didn’t necessarily shop in the bookstores and book departments where those books were found; they were used to buying their books at newsstands and in drugstores.

When I was first coming into New York from the suburbs as a kid in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there was a fabulous selection of paperbacks at a drug store that occupied the corner location in the Grand Central building at 42nd Street and Vanderbilt Avenue. I found a series of baseball biographies there published by Sport Magazine. I remember a book about 1001 things you could get for free by writing away for them. And, of course, the public domain classics were all there. And I got some great trash like “I Sell Love” and a book about airline stewardesses whose title now escapes me but which was great naughty reading for an early teenager.

Then in the summer of 1962, when I was 15, I worked a 2-month stint at the very classy Brentano’s Bookstore on 5th Avenue and 47th Street. My assignment was downstairs in the brand new, just-opened, paperback department. The center of the basement contained the “trade” paperbacks, mostly academic, on shelves. Around the outside were the mass-markets in racks. The mass-markets were on racks arranged by publisher, because the publishers’ reps serviced them on a weekly basis.

Scribners Bookstore, across the street, didn’t deign to stock paperbacks for some years thereafter.

My dad, Leonard Shatzkin, told a story about the legendary Jason Epstein’s Anchor line of paperbacks at Doubleday (perhaps the first line of quality, or trade, paperbacks, but almost certainly the first such line to come from a mainstream trade house). Dad’s responsibilities as Director of Research extended to the sales force and he ran the sales conferences. At one such conference when Anchor Books (and Jason) were very young, Dad told me that Sid Gross, the head of merchandise for the company’s Doubleday Book Stores, tore into the whole concept of the cheap paperback. He hated them. From his perspective, it was bad for a book retailer to be selling 25 cent items instead of $3 items! Many other booksellers back then felt the same way.

My father’s reaction, pretty typical for him, was to support the contrarian and revolutionary view. He pushed the reps to make Anchor Books a success and, a few years later when Epstein had moved on to Random House, Dad created the Dolphin Books line of quality paperbacks to complement Anchor, whose title selection was pretty highbrow, with public domain and more popular current titles.

That anti-paperback snobbery was widespread and the separation between trade and mass-market publishing persisted for a long time. For at least a couple of decades, paperback houses didn’t do hardcovers and didn’t try to put their titles directly into bookstores (as bookstores started to carry mass-markets, at first they bought them from the wholesalers who racked them) and the trade publishers didn’t try to access the mass-market distribution system. This changed in the 1970s. First Peter Mayer and Bill Shinker pioneered the use of mass-market techniques for oversized trade paperbacks published by a mass-market house (Avon). Then a few years later, Bantam starting publishing hardcovers with distribution to mass accounts.

In the end, mass-market distribution was dismantled by a number of forces. The best retail accounts started buying direct from publishers rather than through the local wholesalers. The number of titles grew so that the “allocation” methods wouldn’t work anymore; there were too many publishers and too many titles for a diminishing number of pockets to handle, so the more expensive negotation method became required.

Patterns are being replicated now with inexpensive and widely-available ebooks. New authors are being spawned. Genre fiction works best. Books that were previously successful in more expensive formats can find new audiences as their prices come down and they go where new customers are shopping. And traditional publishers are sure that their “quality” protects them from low-brow competition, even while that competition is taking millions of customer dollars and countless hours of customer mindshare off the table.

But here’s how that old story ended. Mostly, the mass-market publishers won. Penguin bought Viking. Bantam bought Doubleday and then Random House. Simon & Schuster survived largely because they merged very early with Pocket Books. What is now Hachette is largely called Little, Brown, which was a hardcover house, but it really developed over the last two decades of the 20th century as Warner Books, a mass-market house. Really, only HarperCollins and Macmillan of the current Big Six are true descendents of the trade publishers that were dominant when mass-market publishing arose.

There are a slew of differences between the transitions; ebook publishing has a title glut to deal with just like mass-market did, but the challenges are not the same when you don’t have printed books to manufacture and ship around and your distribution isn’t limited by shelf space or pockets to display them. And authors couldn’t do it themselves in the mass-market era the way they can today. But there is a very basic lesson I think publishers better take on board from this history.

Much-less-expensive editions, combined with access to audiences for authors that couldn’t get past the gatekeepers in the established houses, can create millions of new readers that weren’t available to the legacy products at the legacy prices.

And that can lead to economic power that can ultimately swallow up large chunks of the legacy publishing establishment.

I posted more than six months ago that I had read my first self-published ebook, a history of the 1962 New York Mets called “A Year in Mudville”. Then I had an exchange in the comments string of my last post with Joe Konrath, who used to be published by NY publishers but is now finding it much more lucrative to do it himself, and a reader named Chris. They urged me to read a self-published ebook bestseller, “Wish List” by John Locke. It was fabulous, sort of a cross between contemporary bestselling author Carl Hiaasen and a relic of the early mass-market days, Jim Thompson: bold, caustic, and funny with characters you like who suddenly do outrageously anti-social things. Locke has apparently come out of nowhere with just his talent to help him and is selling shedloads of ebooks. (He’ll certainly sell another one or two to me!) I am not price-sensitive about my reading and I haven’t ever shopped the 99 cent pile, but Locke is certainly evidence that there is stuff in there that is the equal of anything the big publishers are doing at major multiples of that price point. It will be an interesting challenge to see if any major publisher can deliver enough added value to make a deal with Locke or Amanda Hocking, another writer who has found a huge market without any help from the establishment.

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